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Daring To be Different

Reflections on a Very Small Boy With a Powerful Voice and a Tired Lady Who Would Not Give Up her Seat

This brief article explores the potential tension for Scottish education between its search for innovation and excellence and the higher level of public accountability in which we operate.

Public accountability and external scrutiny are important elements of our system, but fear of criticism and damage to reputation may be encouraging staff to play safe. Individuals risk losing the courage of their convictions and settle for delivering a superficially compliant service that lacks both conviction and depth. It would be ironic if higher level of public accountability mitigated against our ambition and willingness to take calculated risks to achieve higher goals.

The conclusion that it is better to be safe than adventurous is pernicious. It limits our individual effectiveness and ability to learn from each other’s innovations with the result that we confine our efforts to replicating what others have already done, rather than thinking our way through the issues and daring to be different.   Why risk reputation and standing to secure a really significant outcome when you can settle for a performance that is described as satisfactory?

The reticence in Scottish education to talk ourselves up is only eclipsed by our reluctance to share our surprises and disappointments. No wonder some of us are stressed. On the face of it, no one else’s innovations ever flop and many of the professional colleagues that I meet seem to carry that serene look of inner satisfaction that comes from having perfected the Midas touch.

Wanting to be seen at your best is natural, but the uncomfortable reality is that we learn more from our disappointments than we do from repeating successes. If we are to be truly world class, our system has to encourage us to share and learn from each other’s disappointments as well as profiling successes. Winston Churchill described courage as the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.

I suspect that some headteachers become stressed because, in addition to compensating for the inadequacies of McCrone, they are trying to replicate too many initiatives because they have been highlighted as Best Practice. Perhaps we spend too little time thinking through the selection and sequencing of planned developments and too much effort trying to add the plates that others are spinning to the ones we are already rotating.

Being able to access examples of best practice is helpful, but Jamie Oliver’s recipes don’t work for me. I am also bemused as to how James Taylor gets that wonderfully mellow sound because when I sing exactly the same words to his tune, the sound seems disappointing.

Education involves much more than following a recipe or operating as the educational equivalent of a tribute band. To do justice to our role as educators, we have to demonstrate both courage and conviction and be prepared to step out with heart, determined to make a difference.

You may recall Nkosi Johnson who died on 1st June 2001. Nkosi was the longest surviving South African child born HIV positive. This very small boy with soulful eyes captured the hearts of millions of people through his very public campaign to force the South African government to respond to the problem of Aids. Nkosi had no formal authority, he never attended any leadership seminars, in fact he did not even finish his formal schooling. However, this very small boy with the powerful voice determined to make a difference. His example underlines the fact that so much of what we can achieve comes from inner conviction and character.

Rosa Parks was much older than Nkosi Johnson when on 1st of December 1955 she challenged the practice of segregation by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery Alabama. She could not have known that others would choose to follow her example and that the resultant Montgomery Bus Boycott and ongoing refusal by black people to continue to accept segregation on public transport would give birth to the American Civil Rights Movement. Recalling the incident, Rosa Parks said:

“ People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Nkosi Johnson and Rosa Parks instinctively knew that the system is the way it is because we allow it to operate that way. Up until the Montgomery Bus Boycott, segregation existed because the different communities either supported, or tolerated its existence.

In 1955 Rosa Parks took her stance without the benefit of in-service training or access to examples of best practice in civil disobedience. Neither she nor the members of the civil rights movement waited for guidance from publications such as “How Good is Our Boycott?” or “Desegregating Journeys to Excellence”. They knew what needed to be done and determined to make a difference.

Exposure to the ideas around adaptive leadership has convinced me that some friction between different perspectives and competing values is necessary to take forward our professional learning. However, I also believe that we need to engender a culture where performance information is directed more towards improving than proving our performance.

Knowing where you are is important because it is a pre-requisite to deciding how to proceed. However, if we are seeking to develop a culture of innovation and experimentation, we need to be alert to the danger that our anxiety regarding higher public accountability may make us too risk averse. I look forward to the first seminar which has Blind Alleys and Dead Ends – Lessons Learned as its organising theme.

Mike McCabe, Director of Education (South Ayrshire)

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